A federal judge in Sacramento ruled Wednesday (9/14) that the phrase “under God” makes the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools unconstitutional, a “coercive requirement to affirm God.” What’s more interesting than this latest chapter in the Pledge affair is the response from Christian conservative activtists, who apparently learned from the last round that the best rhetoric is rapid-fire. Within the last few hours, my email box has filled with with press releases. A “tragedy,” declares Karen England of the California-based Capitol Resource Institute. “Preposterous,” snorts Jan LaRue of Concerned Women for America, who says this “proves” the need for John Roberts on the Supreme Court, an odd sentiment from a group that has thus far insisted that we not speculate on how Roberts would rule. Self-described “One Nation Under God expert” Brannon Howse of Worldview Weekend warns that if “Americans continue to allow humanistic liberals to kick God out of our country, the foundation of our freedoms will be destroyed.” This is “war,” declares Howse, over “whether God is or is not.”

Howse may be right about Michael Newdow, the atheist who filed the suit, but most strict separationists are not, in fact, that concerned about whether God “is” so much as where talk about God is. That’s still a debate with sharp edges, but it’s not the stuff of a war. Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council, has a more nuanced take, noting a recent decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit of Appeals upholding “a Virginia law requiring public schools to lead a daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.” The headline of Perkins’ email newsletter declares that the “Pledge Decision Highlights Importance of Roberts Nomination”; but then he cites approvingly Senator Lindsay Graham‘s observation that “ideological allegiance” as a standard for confirmation will “destroy the law.”

Perkins isn’t being hypocritcal. Howse isn’t being dumb. Their rhetoric reveals another reality — or, as they’d argue, reality, period. Perkins’ declaration that Roberts must be confirmed so that he can vote for positions Perkins supports isn’t “ideological” because, to Perkins, his views are not “views” — they are facts. Is this an extension of a literalist reading of scripture — and, for that matter, the constitution — to one’s own views?

For Howse, the answer is no. His argument is reductionist, but not literalist — he eschews the complexities of scripture for an either/or position on governance that can’t be found in the Bible. But it may prove oddly effective in the secular media. Howse knows how to make reporters’ lives easy: Provide the veneer of depth (what this story is really about)and the satisfying structure of a dichotomy. God is, or God is not. Thus Howse claims a victory in the war he says is raging, by naming the sides in a conflict he knows the press will help him create.

Previously revealed Pledge:
“The Kids Are Alright” — 10/29/03
“Another Schism, Another Story” — 12/03/03
“Shallow Wisdom” — 03/24/04
“Retire the ‘Culture War’” — 03/26/04
“Pledge Wars, Pt. 2,341″ — 12/09/04
“Pledge of Wishful Thinking” — 04/22/05
“NYT: This Is What Religion Should Look Like” — 07/03/05